A History of Political Thought in the Sixteenth Century

By J. W. Allen | Go to book overview

CHAPTER VII
THE CATHOLIC PROTEST

RATHER singularly small was the amount of literary protest from the Catholic side against the action of Henry VIII's government. This was so not merely because protest was dangerous and because, for one reason or another, the upper class was supporting the government. Though the England of 1529 was vaguely and confusedly Catholic, its Catholicism was not intelligent enough to be very greatly disturbed by the repudiation of Papal claims and the assertion of a royal supremacy in the Church. So long as the old services and the bulk of the old formulæ were retained, people in general were not acutely conscious of the nature of the change that was being effected. The dissolution of the monasteries stirred popular feeling far more than did the Act of Supremacy. The government of Edward VI did indeed create a somewhat dangerous position and provoke reaction. But Mary Tudor lost her chance.

In 1559 the position was not radically different from what it had been in 1529. 'Protestantism' in some sense may have been more prevalent; anti-Papal sentiment was certainly stronger than it had been. But the thoroughgoing Protestants were still a small minority. The mass of the clergy were certainly Catholic. In January, 1559, the Lower House of Convocation almost unanimously declared for the Roman doctrine and for transubstantiation. The mass of the laity were Catholic rather than Protestant; but their religion was largely a matter of forms and habits and associations. As under the steady pressure of government and establishment new habits and associations were formed and as the older generation died out, the maw of the English people conformed to the new arrangements. The transition was made easy by the strength of nationalist and antiforeign sentiment.

But though the mass of the people gradually ceased to be in any sense 'Catholic', Catholicism, far from dying out, was revivified under Elizabeth. In England, as elsewhere, Catholicism was forced by opposition to clarify itself and look to the grounds of its faith. The fact, too, that the English Catholics drifted gradually into the position

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